Rebecca Orchard is a writer and classical musician who majored in French horn at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Her studies have taken her to Vienna and throughout the US, Scotland, and England. She loves equally the mountains of New Mexico, the canyons of Manhattan, and the hills of her native Ohio, where she has recently returned after living in New York City. She blogs about music, art, and literature at http://ampersanddaily.com/.
The Farm Before the Hills
The researchers were young and dressed as if they did not know the shape of their own bodies. They talked with their hands and with bright eyes, alternating between exclamations and technical jargon, showing each other things on their finicky-looking instruments. They were no friendlier on their return visit than they had been on their first, closed and insular in front of Hank and his wife, becoming animated only once they had been shown into the backyard and Hank had retreated to the house.
Hank Gallett watched them from his back door, rubbing his upper lip with a large and calloused hand. He had learned this habit from his father, who had learned it from his, and so back, so that family gatherings often boasted roomfuls of large lip-rubbing men looking uncomfortable in dress slacks.
His gaze slipped past the researchers and past the fence onto the neatly kept land spreading through the hills behind the house, the sharp angle of the corner of his barn visible at the right. He had been working on its wide door when the cluster of students had arrived the first time and Mrs. Gallett had come out to fetch him, even though she had a much better head for this kind of thing. He had tried to tell her that she would probably understand more of what they would say than he would, but she had remained firm and said that she wouldn’t feel right entertaining strangers without him.
So he had packed away his tools, changed his shoes, washed his hands and the back of his neck in the mud room, and went in to shake the soft, tiny hand of the only member of the team willing to speak to them. The boy was thin, tall, and strangely greasy, with tight blond curls and a pinched look in his face, and introduced himself by his full name, all three of which Mr. Gallett could not remember. The rest of them all looked different but were somehow indistinguishable from one another—runty and yet stretched too thin, with taut and sallow skin.
To introduce themselves they had brought along an official letter bearing the seal of their university and vague mentions of “non-invasive” tests that would be performed, with his permission, on sections of his property. The scientists themselves stood on his front doorstep, giving the clear impression of unease, nudging each other in hopes someone else would be the first to step inside.
It had been one of those days in late winter when the weather seemed like the second coming of autumn rather than the advent of spring, and Hank had sat quietly in his armchair as the tall blond boy explained what they were doing there. He chose simple words for Hank’s benefit. “We believe,” he had said in a reedy voice, “that your property—along with four others we will investigate—is a candidate for a new natural science preserve—akin to the zoning of buildings of historical importance or of national parks—and we’ve developed several instruments which will, we hope, be able to accurately measure the number of people—or lack thereof, ideally—who have stepped on, traveled across, or merely stood, where we would like to survey.”
It was about then that Mr. Gallett found his attention fading, but a quick glance showed his wife standing just inside the door leading into the dining room, drying her hands on a dishrag and then folding her arms across her stomach. He felt comfortable letting his mind wander off, trusting her to both listen and understand.
The students had left just before supper, and over a table full of pork chops, beets, and roasted new potatoes, his wife had patiently explained everything the young man had said. Hank chewed slowly while he listened. Mrs. Gallett was a better cook than even Hank’s mother had been, which had taken him years to admit. Once he had, his wife outdid herself night after night, producing table-groaning feasts long after their children had left them. Between her skills in the kitchen and her extraordinary mind, she had rendered herself as indispensable to Mr. Gallett as his thumbs—whose presence he had always valued very highly, having been impressed as a boy by a claim made in the National Geographic magazine that they were all that separated him from the lower creatures.
All this flashed through his mind in a quick and practiced way, but he was careful not to miss what she said. She had the tact not to speak to him as if he had not understood the kids’ science project, but as if she was discussing something in which he had both interest and much experience.
“I don’t know if it’s a wise idea to let them back,” he had said. “What could they tell us about my property that I don’t already know.”
“Well. From what I gathered, there is something.” She ate a potato. “That boy, the tall one? He said there may be parts of our land—well, I know it sounds a little ridiculous, I can’t really believe it—that may never have been touched. By a human being.”
“Is that rare?” he asked.
“Apparently extremely.” She pursed her lips. “Apparently this whole earth’s been combed over.”
He blinked and rubbed his upper lip. They looked at each other across the table, and Hank felt neither a heavy blow of shock nor any rising excitement. He was not an inquisitive man, and preferred to solve the problems directly in front of him. A rusted hinge, a leaking pipe, a sick animal, an infested crop, a crying daughter, a son who couldn’t spell. All these challenges he had addressed throughout his life when they had been laid out in front of him as simple equations. He had not done particularly well in school but had excelled at math—he knew in his bones what was missing, and how to find it.
He sighed. “Horseshit,” he said, and lit a cigarette.
“Don’t be that way,” she said, and stood up to stack the dirty dishes. She paused at the side of the table. “Hank. These kids think we own a natural treasure. I think we should have them back, see how it turns out. We can make our decision then.”
He had watched her walk into the kitchen and said to the empty room, “Make our decision then,” to put himself back on solid ground.
And so a few weeks later here he stood, leaning against the doorjamb, watching their second inspection and fighting the urge to call them all back into the house and demand something more than their skittish, sideways answers and darting eyes. He heard Mrs. Gallett come up beside him and he did not turn as he said, “They seem pleased.”
She didn’t reply.
The students’ voices were suddenly louder, and there was a small commotion. It took Hank a moment to realize that the tallest one was calling him over, one gangly arm swatting the cool evening air.
He and his wife walked over the slightly damp ground in tandem, stopping behind the row of researchers, who were kneeling in front of a marked-off patch of earth, heedless of the wetness seeping into their jeans or pleated trousers. On their last visit they had demarcated a two-foot-square area with tiny orange flags stuck into the ground, but they had now erected a plastic fence about a foot tall. Inside, a chalky outline made an irregular oval shape, like the white of a cracked egg. “This is it?” Hank asked, trying to sound at least mildly interested. This seemed to range among the list of universal mysteries he didn’t give a shit about. His lack of religious fervor had been a point of contention between him and the rest of his family for nearly his whole life, and his teachers through the years and his artistic young daughter had all independently reached the consensus that he was unimaginative.
“This is it.” The blond boy’s voice trembled with the weight of his emotions.
“What does this mean?” asked Mrs. Gallett, and Hank was proud of her nonchalant concern, as if all that bothered her was potential injury to their property, not the prospect of a wonder of the natural world appearing three feet inside their back fence.
One of the girls spoke. Her voice was both lower and breathier than Hank had expected. “It means that no human foot, hand, or other body part, has ever—touched—this—place. Ever. Ever ever ever. Not since man has existed. Ever.”
“Impossible.” An explosion from Hank. “I watched my father build that fence, there’s no way—”
“It’s well inside the fence.” The tall boy again. “But we are certain, we’ve designed these devices, and they are quite accurate.” He held out his hands, a small gray box clutched in one, a cord leading to a something like a microphone in the other. Hank could not understand the meaning of the ghostly green flickers lighting up the screen in fits and starts. Numbers and lines intertwined and changed as the boy set the contraption back on his lap.
“But," said Mrs. Gallett, "you said there were other contenders, other properties.”
“None of them checked out,” said the redhead. “Yours is the only one. In America, obviously. We haven’t got international clearance. Yet.” The boy looked at her, but said nothing.
Hank looked at the boy, looked at his wife, looked at the long blue of the distant sky. He had stood in this yard almost every day of his entire life. His mother used to march him out here with her large hands firmly cupping his shoulders, rub freezing water onto his scalp and cut his hair while he alternated between fidgeting and watching the goings on in the fields beyond the fence. His sons had army crawled their way through imaginary wars, and though Hank grew too old to join in he always wanted to be on his elbows in the dirt with them. His father had told stories of summer parties with tables borrowed from the church and his grandmother’s bread-and-tomato salad set out under a strong sun. Hank and his own wife had hauled their children out onto blankets to watch fireworks on the Fourth when they were too tired to pack dinner and drive into town.
Now eight pimply shits had invaded his home and were here telling him there was a piece of his property that did not belong to him. That this piece of land had been purchased by his great-grandfather but never properly claimed, never brought into the family. There was an ugly quilt in the upstairs linen closet knit by a long-deceased great-aunt that had not been touched since before Hank had been born. It sat and sat and sat and he despised it for its lack of purpose. Now eight greasy children who had not yet grown into their own skins were saying that his land was just as useless. The land he had never had to purchase, true, but which he had worked for since he was seven and which he loved at least as much as he loved his children, and only slightly less than he loved his wife.
He rubbed his lip. He said nothing.
But his wife said, “What do we do?”
The researchers—students—left pamphlets and letters stacked on the table just inside the front door. There had been a twenty-minute consultation during which not much was said, although too many words were spoken. Hank was fighting a rising inner tide that, if he was honest with himself, could be called panic. He was faced with depths outside his reckoning, churning waters licking at the soles of his boots. He felt threatened not because chaos was approaching, but because he knew he would soon need to step into it willingly, and with deliberation.
He sat at his empty kitchen table long after his wife had gone to bed. She had tried to ask him a few questions but upon receiving no answer had just brushed his shoulder and climbed the stairs alone, familiar with every shade of his character.
One of the students who hadn’t spoken had grasped his hand briefly before leaving. “I know it’s a lot,” she said, as if speaking to a child, “but if I could recommend one thing, it would be getting the National Parks Service involved. No messy private enterprise scamming you, no maintaining this whole thing yourself, just a lump sum and a very noble cause. Maybe,” she smiled, “Maybe you can get them to name it after you or someone you love.” Her eyes had flicked to Hank’s right, where Mrs. Gallett stood. The girl smiled again, released his hand and walked out. They had all piled into their van and pulled away and Hank had stood at his front door for a long time before moving to sit at the head of the table.
He had not read the pamphlets or the letters. They were supposed to tell him what to do, how to navigate, which road to take. Words on paper that promised him everything from wealth and prestige to a replacement property some thirty miles south. The kids had mentioned a few things before they left, and their manner made it clear that something was inevitable.
Loss of property. The sale of his home and his farm. Relinquishing any hold on this small portion of the vast earth that was his. That belonged to him. He was taken aback by the sudden question: Could any man truly own the land he walked on? The concept that this great world could be parceled out into scraps of dust and dirt, this thought wormed into his head and confused him. That animals like men could kill each other over this. One more rock. One more tree. He thought of papers in the safety deposit box in the bank, bearing his signature and the signature of a lawyer. His father had bequeathed him this farm not because Hank was the eldest but because Hank loved it the most. His brothers and sisters held jobs with cards they punched as they came and left, but Hank woke early each morning not to make sure he wouldn’t get fired but because he knew that a well-disciplined life was the only way to properly tend his land and his livelihood.
And Mrs. Gallett—she had married him as a man with property who possessed well-maintained fields and who could afford to hire two young men to ease some of the workload. Hank would leave his farm to his eldest children: twins, a boy and a girl, who loved these acres and the life they meant. He saw ahead past his death, to an addition built onto the house to accommodate his son's and daughter's families. There would be bickering but not fighting—those two had been two halves of one soul since birth. His grandchildren would be raised as siblings, not as cousins, and on the Fourth of July the whole family would come and picnic in the backyard.
There his inner sight shifted, and he imagined all of this—the same exact things—happening at a different house, a different farm, both still well-run and full of his family. He was not a stupid man. He knew that the loss of this specific acreage did not mean the loss of his whole life. It did not unseat him as the patriarch of an upstanding, well-regarded family whose name in the town meant honesty and good credit. It did not remove his manhood, the respect of his friends, or the love of his wife. They could simply pack their belongings in taped-up cardboard boxes labeled in his wife’s clear hand, taking the opportunity to throw away or sell their old and useless things. Their friends would bring them housewarming gifts and food to reheat while they were occupied with settling into the new house. Maybe they would have to buy two properties, the farm not in sight of the new house but separated by a few miles of turning country road. Maybe he would need to drive to work every morning. Perhaps he could buy a bigger house and have his son and daughter move in before he died, so he could see firsthand their future happiness.
And he felt the imprint of Mrs. Gallett’s fingers on his shoulder before she had gone to bed and he reheard her words, gently echoing inside his head, bouncing from surface to surface leaving quiet impressions. “You do what’s best,” she had said, her voice soft in volume but full of her bold certainty. She had patted his shoulder once and left him, knowing that her words had entered his thoughts and would eventually register, as audible to him as if she had just spoken them a moment ago.
He looked up, half-expecting to see her there, but the room was empty and quite dark. He stood. There was a moment of perfect, ringing stillness before he moved. He took a step towards the door. Hesitated. Then shook his head like a cow shaking off a fly and strode through the kitchen to the back door and outside. The darkness was cloaking, a strange and chilly comfort that helped to soothe his churning mind. The layout of his backyard was suggested only by shadows standing in expected places, and he walked through the damp grass and around the well to the corner of the yard that had been marked off by the short plastic fence.
The patch of earth was small and almost bare, as the grass had not yet recovered from the weight of constant snow. There was a sprout here and there, and the occasional stone, but it was mainly naked earth. The dew glittered on the sparse stems of grass and the soil was damp but not sodden or muddy.
He did not know when he made his decision—looking back he would remember standing lamely to one side of the outlined dirt and then his large booted foot descending. It was not a step but a barely controlled fall, a stumble and a plummet through the air, through his mind, and—he realized with a rush—through his future and his family’s.
He felt his boot hit, somehow felt the not-quite-mud rise up and fill the treads. And then he felt the whole earth rise up to meet that dirt and he felt the whole miraculous earth turning with him as the fulcrum. He was one man, the product of so much external influence, and this world was full of men like him pulling and pushing the ground towards one and away from the other. His senses extended beyond his body through the earth he was standing on, the earth he owned, through the deep soils beneath it past worms and moles and subterranean creatures and caverns and boulders. How deep did his ownership go? Did the deed in the bank include the miles and miles beneath him, down to the bedrock? Did it include the Earth’s molten core, which he imagined rose and fell like a vast underground sea? He was the first man to ever set a part of his body upon this place, and he felt the eons of history slide past him so swiftly he felt his hair move in their wake.
The whole revolving world, all of its joy and agony, spun through him and along with him and he stood there for a long, long time.
Eventually the sensations subsided, the spinning stopped, and he started to feel foolish, balanced forward and holding completely still like he expected someone or something to come upon him at any moment. He looked down and saw his boot, which did not cover all of the chalked-out space, so he ground his heel a little savagely as if extinguishing a cigarette, and it was gone. The ground was scuffed, the chalk lines obviously disturbed, and he did not turn back to look again as he headed inside.
Hank pulled off his boots just inside the mudroom door and walked up the creaking stairs where he stood beside the bed and paused for a moment before climbing under the sheets next to his deeply sleeping wife. He knew then more strongly than he had ever known that he was just another man, and that men like him would live in this place and work in this place far past his own time here. And he knew that tomorrow morning he would rise early, eat breakfast with his wife, and walk through his yard, out the back gate, and into the dips and rolls of the land that he had always owned.
“ This is an idea that has fascinated me for ages. I find myself looking at the grass in the median of the highway, underbrush in Central Park, a mulched suburban garden, thinking, There just has to be...
This story does not end as I expected it to: my conception of the plot changed as I grew to understand the character. The more I explored Hank Gallett, the more I knew what he would—and wouldn’t—do. ”